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Are we getting carried away with plastic bag use?

Plastic bag use by the supermarkets is on the rise again – eight billion single-use plastic bags were given away to shoppers last year. But who is responsible for weaning us off them?

We’re using 10% more single-use plastic carrier bags than we were two years ago, according to the latest figures from the Waste Resources Action Plan (Wrap). But how much of a problem is this? And is it our responsibility to fix it, or should the government and retailers be playing their part too?

Supermarket solutions

UK supermarkets no longer have targets to reduce the number of bags used, but when they did, it worked. In 2008, leading supermarkets signed an agreement to supply 50% fewer single-use plastic bags by 2009. They achieved 48%.

But since the agreement ended in May 2009, plastic bag use has risen again. This shows that supermarkets can’t reduce carrier bag use without regulation. So should they go back to having targets for reduction?

M&S is the only one of the seven major supermarkets to charge for bags – with profits going to charity. This has resulted in a 78% drop in bag use at its stores. Should other supermarkets follow suit? When we asked you last year, eight in ten thought plastic bags should be free.

Is it us or them?

We can all, as consumers, decide to stop accepting single-use plastic bags and use reusable bags instead, as well as reusing or recycling any single-use bags we pick up. When we asked consumers, 92% say they do reuse single-use plastic carrier bags, either for shopping (53%) or as bin liners (74%).

The government could have a role in this too – perhaps it could implement a ban or a charge for plastic bags? Countries that force shops to impose a charge on plastic bags have seen massive drops in the numbers given away. The 5p levy on single-use carrier bags introduced in Wales in 2011 resulted in Morrisons reducing carrier bag use by more than 80%.

Since 2002, shops in the Republic of Ireland have put a levy on all plastic bags (except reusable ones) to curb litter. From April 2013, shoppers in Northern Ireland will also be charged 5p a bag. But what about England? In a recent Which? survey we found that over half of people in England support a 5p charge.

A throwaway society?

Plastic bags are a symbol of our disposable society and 80% of the people asked in our survey said they are concerned about the environmental impact of plastic bags. But actually they make up less than 1% of household waste and their environmental impact is small compared to, for example, food and packaging waste. Because of this, some argue that we should be focusing on other, more impactful, environmental issues.

Do we need to be concerned about plastic bags? And if so, is it a problem for the government and supermarkets to resolve, or a challenge that consumers need to embrace ourselves?


This problem needs to be dealt with by legislation since most people don’t care enough about environmental issues to make much effort.

If we had left it up to personal choice, we would probably not have introduced smoke control zones and catalytic converters. Respiratory disease would have been significantly higher and the only conceivable benefit would be a lower population.

As mentioned in the introduction, plastic bags are not the biggest environmental issue, but it would not be difficult to cut use dramatically if there was a charge. How hard is it to take your own bags to the supermarket? Some people have done this for decades.

I would suggest that we get rid of the flimsy free bags that are not strong enough to re-use and sell heavier duty bags for 10 or 20p.

Paper bags are commonly suggested as an alternative to disposable plastic bags but it does not take much investigation to realise that they are not a solution.

Our regional supermarket chain do push the 10p “Bag for Life” and most of the locals use them, however holidaymakers who make up a significant proportion of the customers tend not to come equipped with a supply of bags.

I think there has been a culture change as far as reusing plastic bags is concerned and more of the single use bags are being used several times often ending up as bin liners or being recycled.
It would be interesting to know whether sales of bin liners are also rising ?

Gerard Phelan says:
22 August 2012

It would not be hard for the Tabloids to describe a bag fee as a ‘TAX on Shopping’ and make a lot of fuss. I take a number of ‘Bags for Life’ when I go on planned shopping trips and would not mind paying a small charge when I forget, but then I have a good income. Perhaps there are many around me living on the fringes of poverty for whom even such a small charge would be a burden and who rely on today’s free bags as their source of bin liners and nappy disposal bags.

I don’t mind paying extra for a bag, but that’s because I generally do bring my own bags, and I have a big stash of canvas bags that I use for shopping.

My main bugbear is that there are so many situations in which shops give you bags despite the fact that you clearly don’t need them. I’ve probably moaned about this before but when I go to get my lunch from the supermarket across the road from work (which consists of, at the most, three small items that I’m clearly going to eat straight away) it is always automatically put in a bag. Every single time I have to say to the shop assistant “I don’t need a bag, thanks, I’ll put them in my shoulder bag” and am met with bemused looks.

Likewise if I do a big online shop, I’m asked to tick a box at the end of the transaction saying ‘I don’t need my shopping in bags’ – well, of *course* I don’t need my shopping in bags – it’s being delivered to my door! Unless I’m on a top-floor flat, and there’s nowhere for the van to park outside, I can’t see any reason why I would need bags. It’s really annoying.

I’ve also had checkout operators start packing plastic bags for me, but I just take the items out and put them in my bag, or let them pack my bags. If anything is sticky or wet I’m happy to have it put in a small plastic bag.

In city centre stores I say that I don’t need a bag. Usually this is accepted but sometimes I have been told that I must use the shop’s bag because of the store’s policy. I say that I am not prepared to, for environmental reasons. I have had some assistants look uneasy but no-one has forced me to use a bag.

Absolutely agree Nikki, and this is another reason which I am so anti-self-service checkouts. In all the shops I’ve been to, except M&S, using disposable bags on the self-service check out is mandatory because the machine won’t work if you place your own bag in it (it counts this as “Unexpected item in bagging area”). M&S have made an attempt at making the system work (which shows that the technology can do it if the retailer wishes to bother to set it up) but it isn’t very good and often calls an assistant to verify that you really have entered the correct number of bags to be paid for (it’s probably programmed to distrust any customer who claims to have used no bags!).

Anyway, self-service tills aside, I quite agree that the issue of shops insisting that you have one of their bags is a problem and it’s unforgivable these days.

The Tesco self-service tills now have a button that allows you to use your own bags, provided they are all put on the packing bench at the start.

You will still have to call the staff to sort out other problems, of course.

@Wavechange. I don’t shop in tesco, ever, but I’m very pleased to hear that they have done this with their SS checkouts and it goes to show that it cane be done if the retailer wishes. A good mark for Tesco for once 🙂

Chris says:
22 August 2012

When I was living in Australia a few years ago, most supermarkets just stopped using plastic bags and instead offered really robust and good quality tote bags for around $1 (40p at the time) – I was more than happy to meet the inital cost for this quality bag and still carry them round in my backpack to save me using plastic bags here.

The situation won’t change unless we’re no longer offered plastic.

hazel says:
22 August 2012

We should take our own bags when we go shopping. It is only laziness that prevents us getting into this routine. I know that plastic bags are not the only problem, but it is one problem that can easily be resolved. Plastic bags cause a litter problem in that they are blown around in the wind and can get stuck up trees. They also affect marine life, and whales have died of starvation or other causes after ingestion of plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish.
By the way, Lidl also charges for bags.

There are always situations ,e.g. when on holiday, when an unplanned purchase forces you to get a plastic bag especially if its raining.

I work in a charity shop in a touristy area and we always say “do you NEED a bag” rather than just offering them. Our use of plastic bags is closely related to the weather !

David Cordon MBE says:
22 August 2012

This has been going on for years, why don’t we do what the French supermarkets do and just ban all plastic bags, and if you have come without your own bag, they then charge for bio-degradable cardboard boxes! Simple!

I recycle standard-size supermarket bags as bin-liners – but now that I usually take my own re-usable ones, I find that I run out of them and have to deliberately take a few rather than buy purpose-made bin liners. Yes, I bet sales of bin liners would go up if free plastic bags were banned.

Actually I don’t think supermarkets are the only offenders here. Smaller grocery shops are much worse at compulsory bags – but the real bad guys are shoe and clothes shops which dish out heavy-duty fancy plastic bags with paper inserts and stout handles for even quite small purchases. Yes, they are strong enough to re-use – but how many bags does one person need?

D Preston says:
22 August 2012

I always ask for plastic bags in my supermarket.
They are small and very lightweight because they are made from thin gauge plastic sheet.
We use them for kitchen bin liners (more essential as refuse collections become less frequent).
If I used/ compelled to use reusable bags for my shopping I would have to buy specific bin liners.
These are larger and are made from thicker gauge plastic sheet (more profit for the supermarket).
This would mean I would be putting more plastic sheet in to the waste system, at least twice as much.
How can this make sense ?, do`nt the powers that be think things through ?

Argus says:
23 August 2012

Do people apply the same logic when shopping for clothes/shoes/non-food items?

Could hemp bags be a solution to this? Can it be mass produced as easily as plastic? probably not but it’s worth a look

It will be interesting to see whether the 10% increase in “single-use” plastic bags is a blip or a worrying trend. As correspondents have said, it might be more than compensated for by the tendency of people to use them a second or third time and instead of other more problematic materials. A hideous number of large plastic refuse sacks were being routinely sent to landfill until a few years ago before wheelie bins were introduced and with waste separation now practised in most housholds the kitchen bins are not filling up so fast [as cardboard and plastic things are put in the recyclingcontainers] so the need for so many heavier grade bin-liners has greatly reduced. [There has been a noticeable change in habits – there are very few of the large kitchen bins in the shops nowadays, most people finding a small pedal bin adequate – just the right size for a supermarket carrier bag as a liner.]

John has made the point that supermarket bags degrade and anyone who has reused them to store items in their garage, loft or at the back of a cupboard will find that many bags disintegrate within a couple of years. The plastics used disintegrate, but – unless things have changed – biodegradation is slow.

Apparently simple issues are actually very complicated and it is difficult for us to know what to do for the best. What is clear is that it is always best to reuse items as much as possible and to try to convince others to be aware of our impact on the environment.

I like free plastic bags from the supermarket. I think they come in very useful and are not as environmentally unfriendly as some would have us believe.
Yes if desposed of irresponsibly they pose a limited environmental problem but no more so than any other item of litter.
Free plastic bags are often not “single use” and the vast majority don’t end up attached to a dolphin’s nose. Rather they become bin liners, old newspaper holders, loose fruit bags and some get reused for shopping.
The real problem is with all the other unnecessary “single use” packaging we get. There is far more of that around the various supermarket items we put into our plastic bags than the bags themselves, and that packaging cannot be reused.
No, I think this “big environmental problem” caused by plastic bags is a myth.
I’m collecting as many as I can while they’re still free in preparation for when some well meaning but misguided fool makes us pay 5p a go for them.
Wonder who will get that 5p (times who knows how many million)?

From a recent newsletter I see that a local councillor has written to Tesco asking for mesh to be reinstated on the perimeter fence to stop plastic bags being blown out of the Tesco car park, and ending up in trees and gardens. A couple of years ago, this Tesco store started asking customers if they wanted bags and now almost all assistants offer them. Some even start packing them for me, even when I have a selection of well-used reusable bags in the trolley.

Martin says:
23 August 2012

As I was reading the article on plastic bags, I couldn’t help notice that I had just unpacked the magazine from a plastic bag, which had gone straight in the bin. I’m sure that packing in plastic is very convenient but feel that Which? should be leading by example and looking for another way to package the magazines.

What would you suggest, Martin? Magazine wrappers prevent magazines getting dirty or wet. Waterproofed paper would be a bigger environmental problem. The plastic wrapper is likely to go straight in the recycling bin. Ultimately we might all be happy to read our copies of Which? online and have the advantage of being able to search for what we are looking for.

It’s not quite the same as taking your reusable bags to the supermarket and declining the ones they offer.

@ Martin & Wavechange.

This annoys me too – and Which? are nothing like alone in this practice.

What is wrong with paper envelopes (which may well be more expensive, and create more environmental impact in the manufacture, but they are re-USEable and fully recyclable and most people these days have at least got into the habit of recycling paper) or indeed with doing what quite a few catalogue people do now and simply printing the name and address on the back of the catalogue itself, along with a postal franking mark, and sending the item unwrapped? I guess the latter is frowned upon because the magazine could arrive dirty and damaged, but actually the number of catalogues which go through the post and arrive pristine without wrappers suggests that this can be done with a reasonable success rate.

None oft eh solutions I can think of or have seen seem to be perfect but I have an instinctive feeling that plastic bags must be amongst the worst overall?

Hi @Martin – a point well made. There’s been a lot of debate in the publishing industry around the best materials to use and the clearest messaging to include on polywrap packaging. The number of magazines we produce, along with the different combinations of magazine subscriptions Which? members take out, means that paper envelopes aren’t a practical solution.

Our magazines are currently distributed in a wrapper made from oxo-degradable low density polyethylene which is designed to break down in the upper layers of landfill. This material can also be taken to some supermarket recycling points and can be succesfully recycled, however many consider this to be inadvisable because the material will degrade over time if exposed to moisture and warmth, potentially damaging any product that contains the recycled material.

Newly issued industry guidelines developed in collaboration with WRAP, as well as new industry commitments created with Defra, encourage the use of standard polyethylene (rather than the oxo-degradable equivalent) used in conjunction with on-pack labelling that provides clear advice to the user about how to recycle it.

The aim of this initiative is for the publishing industry to contribute to the more widespread recycling of polywraps, in order to encourage local authority investment in kerbside recyling services that will accept polyethylene.

I’ve been speaking with our suppliers only today about bringing our production operations in line with these guidelines and hope to have some news on this very soon.

Great info from Mike Agate – thanks.

I guess your point about local recycling is (one of the most) key: there’s been lots said on other convo’s about the patchy and in some areas downright useless recycling services (for example where I am we can’t even recycle CFL bulbs) and for both postal packing and for carrier bags if the recycling facilities were reasonably standard over the UK (and at least fairly accessible) the issue would take on a different perspective.

Tesco stopped using oxo-degradable plastic last year, due to the fact that it is not as environmentally friendly as some claim.

Reusable shopping bags that are used many times are the ideal solution for taking shopping home but choosing the most environmentally friendly way of wrapping magazines is a bit harder. I think we should not worry about this until we have dealt with the much greater problem of excessive packaging of so many items that we buy.

Vivienne says:
24 August 2012

I want to continue to be given “free” plastic bags from supermarkets and other shops. It is very easy for drivers to carry plastic bags and “bags for life” in their car but a big problem for non-drivers like me. I have a 25 minute walk to the supermarket and simply could not carry sufficient heavy, bulky bags with me. I do have to get a cab home with all my shopping, but would not want to have to get one to the supermarket too. My supermarket and other shops bags are always reused for bin liners, storage, garden rubbish, charity shop donations etc – without these “free” bags I would have to buy bin liners and larger bags instead, rather defeating the object. I recycle as much as possible and choose not to drive, which is far more beneficial to the environment than not using plastic bags.

I’m sorry Vivienne, I have to disagree.

My mum is 82 and has never driven in her life. Further she lives in a semi-rural area with relatively poor and infrequent busses (and she does NOT use taxi’s!)

I’m 44 and have never driven a car in my life. I do live within 4 miles of the centre of a large city.

Neither mum nor I ever go out shopping without a supply of bags , in mum’s case she still also takes her wicker shopping basket that she’s had since the 1940’s, well before she married, and her bags are mainly string and hessian types. My bags consist of a relatively modern, relatively trendy, satchel type bag (what used to be known as a record bag), in which I have a variety of re-usable bags including a Waitrose hessian bag with plasticised inner lining and rope handles, a Waitrose cloth bag, a Marks and Spencer woven plastic “Fig Roll” bag and a couple of Waitrose Delivery service carriers (which are very big and very strong plastic).

If you take a few seconds to fold up your bags they take up almost no space inside a shoulder bag, shopping basket, handbag, ‘manbag’ or whatever.

Generally I walk the 4.5 miles into town or the 4 miles to Waitrose, and mum, 82 remember, walks the 2.5 miles to her nearest Co-op or 4 miles to her nearest Sainsbury’s.

We also use our assorted bags for our shopping in other types of store too, and apart from John Lewis (who really really annoy me by refusing to let you buy goods without one of their bags, and I expect I really really annoy them by making a complaint to the assistant every time they insist on a bag and then, two steps away from the cash desk, taking my purchases out of their plastic bags, putting them into my own bags, and depositing the plastic bag back on their counter) I don’t have too much trouble refusing bags in the shops. H&M can be a little funny sometimes, usually if I ask for clothing to go straight into my ‘record’ bag, but mostly they don’t grumble much.

I’m not a big fan of M&S but I have to say that they are best with bags, and I wholeheartedly support their charging for all plastic carriers – I just wish they charged a lot more so it really made people think.

John Lewis annoy me (as above) but Waitrose, despite being the same company, are very good, always asking “How many bags do you need?” and then counting out the number you have asked for from under the till rather than leaving a pile on display. They also don’t even offer bags if they can see that you have your own to hand.

Before Waitrose started to do Home Delivery I sued to take my rucksac if I was doing a really big supermarket shop and pack the groceries into that. I see lots of other people doing this at Waitrose. I now try to shop once a month for everything except fresh fruit & veg and get it delivered. THis does result in Waitrose sending a number of plastic bags that I wish they would not – but at least they do offer to take the empties back for recycling and I can always pass them to my local electrical shop who re-uses them rather than buying in new plastic bags.

For bin liners I use the plethora of charity bags which still come through my door despite the brass “NO! Hawkers, Circulars, Charity Bags, Free Papers” sign over the letter box. I can’t remember when I last bought a bin bag and even if the charity bags stopped today, I’d have enough for my bins for at least another 6 months.


Sorry that’s such a long post: bottom line – if we want to bother, all of us can take bags of one sort or another with us to every type of shop, regardless of how we travel and what we are buying and on that basis, I agree with the other comments on this convo to the effect of the consumers’ laziness being the reason that plastic bags are still being issued willy-nilly.

(What, I wonder, would our parents and grandparents, who lived in and before the war – when plastic bags did not exist – and almost all of whom did NOT have access to a car, make of our reasons (or excuses) for still needing plastic carrier bags?)

Geoff Uttley says:
24 August 2012

Here in Wales the Welsh Government makes stores charge 5p for a bag, so most people us ‘Bags for Life’. The money is donated to a charity of the store’s choosing. The problem arises, however, when buying an item of clothing; here too the 5p charge applies. Who would want to pack new fabric goods in a bag which has been used for the weekly shopping. Certainly not me! So it becomes an unfair surcharge on the purchaser.

Peter Hutcison says:
24 August 2012

Come to Wales!
Free disposable plastic carriers are restricted to fresh fish and loose vegetables. Everywhere else they are 5p by law. The money collected goes to a charity chosen by the shop. The consumption of bags has fallen by more than 90% and few people are complaining.

My mother (like all our neighbours} never went shopping without a shopping bag, and when I started shopping there were no plastic bags.

Geoff Uttley says:
24 August 2012

But, Peter, I expect your mother expected her new clothes to be parceled up in paper and string! I’m all in favour of abandoning ‘single use’ plastic bags for supermarket type shopping, but not for some other items.

David says:
25 August 2012

I totally agree with the comments of D Preston posted above. My wife & I always re-use the supermarket plastic bags as bin liners and none are ever thrown away empty. We do need to use two at a time as they have holes in them. So if we are forced to use re-usable carrier bags which are no use as bin liners, then we will have to buy specific liners. So where is the saving in plastic?

Maybe a charge for bags is the most sensible solution, so that the customer has the choice. I believe that is the situation in Wales.

The discussion seems to be all about the bags that you use/get at the Supermarket Checkout. However, when you buy fruit and vegetables they either come pre-packed in a plastic wrap or loose which you put into a small plastic bag. If there is a charge for the bag at the checkout, will there also be a charge for the bag on the vegetable stand? Will there be a charge for the wrap around pre-packed items?
I often go to the open-air market where the traders will put the fruit/veg into ‘one-time plastic bags’ (their side of the stall) rather than asking for a bag to be passed across to be filled. This bag is equivalent to the bags in the supermarket veg stand in its purpose – but the size of the checkout bag (the market trader is hoping to sell you a larger quantity). Would a charge for plastic bags also apply to these market traders?

Geoff Uttley says:
25 August 2012

Hi Ian,

Here in Wales the 5p cost does NOT apply to fruit and vegetables supplied loose (i.e.not prepacked) or to ‘wet’ fish. I understand that a charge is made for everything else – though you can pick up an ARGOS catalogue in their store and it comes in a free plastic carrier bag! The 5p charge levied is used totally for charitable purposes selected by the retailer and is not handed to the Welsh Government. Locally. most stores seem to favour the Air Ambulance or local Hospice.